Textiles, the cutting edge industry of the 19th century, are making a surprising comeback in the 21st-century US. The New York Times profiles the unexpected economic twist, noting that manufacturers are becoming more concerned with safety and quality workmanship than with rock-bottom wages—two areas where America enjoys an advantage over countries like China.The industry, however, still faces one problem: attracting enough workers to keep the machines running. Some employers are tackling this issue by experimenting with new training programs:
Run by a coalition of manufacturers, a nonprofit organization and a technical college, the program runs for six months, two or three nights a week, and teaches novices how to be industrial sewers, from handling a sewing machine to working with vinyl and canvas.Eighteen students, ranging from a 22-year-old taking a break from college to a 60-year-old former janitor who had been out of work for three months, enrolled in the inaugural session that ended in June. The $3,695 tuition was covered by charities and the city of Minneapolis, though students will largely be expected to pay for future courses themselves.After the course, the companies, which pay to belong to the coalition, sponsored students for a three-week rotation on their factory floors and a two-week internship at minimum wage. Then the free-for-all began as the members competed to hire those graduates who decide to pursue a career in industrial sewing.
We’ve seen American manufacturing employment making small gains in areas besides textiles as well; US workers as a whole have benefitted from the recent trend in onshoring. They would be smart, however, not to assume that these jobs will last. Advances in technology are likely to continue to put pressure on workers to develop new skills and move from one industry to the next as circumstances dictate.This has serious implications for higher-ed policy. We need to remember that the debate isn’t just about how to run four-year colleges for humanities majors; a lot of what we call higher education in this country is really vocational training. This kind of training needs to become much cheaper and more efficient, as people are forced to come back to the well several times during their working lives to develop new skills. Cheap, convenient, flexible and efficient: that is what the educational sector needs to be.Getting this right is important, not just because we need to maintain a healthy national economy, but also because we need to offer opportunities and support for those most in need of them.[Textile factory image courtesy of Shutterstock]